The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

Owen YoungmanOwen YoungmanOwen Youngman

Paving the road to the Web (or just spreading gravel)

On Jan. 19, 1995, I called to order the first meeting of a 10-person Chicago Tribune committee charged by our bosses with figuring out the Internet.

By March 29 … yes, just twenty years ago … we were done.

(Must have been the head start: Since 1992, the company had been running Chicago Online, a service on America Online that was about to become profitable … thanks to the number of hours its users were spending not so much reading the news, but chatting with each other.)

Of course, our merry little cross-functional band knew full well we weren’t done. But we were done enough to pitch a vision and a business plan, and to argue for the organizational bandwidth needed to hire about 18 new staffers. And then to turn them loose.

We also knew that even if we persuaded the bosses to go for our ideas, we could still screw it up. “An uncompetitive or uncompelling product invites ridicule, or worse, complete uninterest,” I wrote. “Reputations are made and lost on the Internet as quickly as technology changes; what once was ‘innovative reuse of content’ is now ‘shovelware.’ A substandard or merely mediocre product not only puts at risk our reputation for technological innovation; it also provides an opening for competitors.”

But enough quoting from source material, whether the prose be deathless or deadly. Here’s just the executive summary of that lengthy document … now-outdated or merely quaint verbiage unchanged … just as it looked when it officially saw the light of day in the Medill Room on the second floor of Tribune Tower. (Actually, it was a dimly lit room; can I blame that for the fact that I didn’t see just how fast it was all going to happen?) Click the image immediately below to navigate to a more readable PDF version that also includes the final two paragraphs that noted we’d need not only to hire new folks, but also to actually retain them.


Only one member of that committee, the intrepid Eric Zorn, remains at the Tribune. Props here to the rest, alphabetically: Barbara Boyer, Carolyn Crafts, Larry Druth, Kurt Fliegel, Judith Hoffman, Ann Marie Lipinski, the late Jim Szott, and Dave Wortsman. Whatever we didn’t get done in the years that immediately followed was my fault, not theirs.

We celebrate the book, and sing the e-book

IMG_2369 IMG_2362IMG_2371Looking at Julia Keller’s new e-short story: My Kindle Fire, Kindle DX, and Nexus 7. Admittedly, none of this hardware is of recent vintage…

This Saturday (June 7), I’ll be returning to the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest for the first time in a couple of years. It’s the 30th anniversary of an event that was called the Printers Row Book Fair when we acquired it from the Near South Planning Board a dozen years ago. My longtime colleague and Tribune literary editor Elizabeth Taylor invited me back for a panel called “The Digital Revolution,” its general topic being “the many digital developments that are transforming the publishing industry.” (Event details at the end of this post.)

As it happens, the first thing that Liz and I worked on together was itself a “digital development”—a standalone Web site for the Tribune books section called “Chicago Books,” developed for us by Jimmy Guterman and which launched in August of 1997 even though only a fraction of the section’s readers were yet even online — and when, according to my files, a week of 30,000 Books page views was a big deal. (If you want to re-enter that version of the world, check out this piece by Donna Seaman from that month: “Learning to Crawl: Book Lovers Go On-Line.”)

Also as it happens, this is also the week in my Coursera MOOC “Understanding Media by Understanding Google” where one of the two topics being discussed is the impact of the Web in general, and Google in particular, on the book business (the other is the news business). One of the ideas I have put out for agreement or disagreement is taken from Steven Levy’s In the Plex, in which he quotes librarian John Wilkin of the University of Michigan: “Twenty years from now, interaction with a physical book will be rare. Most of that interaction will be in the study of books as artifacts.”

Does my worldwide student body agree? Continue reading

So what are you seeing in your Google Glass?

Sandia Mountains

The Sandia Mountains near Santa Fe, #throughglass

The Glass Chronicles, III: Summer of #glass

Okay, so I didn’t take Google Glass to Italy in July. It seemed to me, as I was packing, that I wanted neither the distraction of explaining it to security guards, nor the potential data-roaming charges from tethering it to my iPhone as I was wandering around Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome. (Also, after a solid month of videotaping lectures for my MOOC about the media and Google, the idea of taking the device threatened to make the trip feel like work instead of vacation.) In retrospect, however, I can see that my fellow tourists might have had some good ideas about how to deploy it, and that the convenience of hands-free operation of a good digital camera might have been  worthwhile … as long as I didn’t turn into one of those people who snaps photos inside the Uffizi without actually looking at the art.

Santa Fe Opera #throughglass

Santa Fe Opera, #throughglass

That lesson learned, it was an easier call to take Glass to Santa Fe for a couple of weeks in August. First of all, there was the necessity of actually using the add-on sunglasses that I modeled in my previous post. Second, no roaming charges, even while roaming near the Santa Fe Opera. And third, what a fine place to get a few more ideas from “real people.” One outcome is that I decided that the results of Medill’s spring survey of mobile users about Glass are pretty much on the money: Easily half of the people I encountered knew exactly what I was wearing — and  most of them claimed interest in joining the ranks of the Glassy-eyed. (Well, maybe not the cashier in the chocolate shop, but definitely the one in the jewelry store.) Continue reading

Further adventures in the land of the MOOC

Friday when I went by my office at Medill, I found this image taped to the doorjamb. One of my colleagues had cheerfully appended a headline: “OWEN YOUNGMAN: A MAN AND HIS MOOC.”

Either that, or by the looks of it, a man transfixed by what he sees through his Google Glass.

In either event, two days earlier I had taken to social media to note that the long path to launching “my” (and Medill’s, and Northwestern’s) first massively open online course had briefly wound from a thicket into a clearing. The team from NUIT NUAMPS ( the Northwestern University Advanced Media Production Studio) had finished capturing my last planned Google+ Hangout-based interview, the last of more than 20 planned video elements. The night before, we’d confirmed a Sept. 16 launch date for the six-week course.

(You have enrolled, right? You’ve at least watched the updated promotional video? I’ll wait here.) Continue reading

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